writing about love

on cynicism, or wow I hated Before Midnight a whole lot

it feels pretty stupid writing essays about feelings in light of the tragedies that have taken place and continue to take place in this country. here are some places where you can educate yourself about, and donate to help fight back against, anti-asian and anti-sex-worker violence. I would especially encourage you to support and donate to Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers doing important work protecting these vulnerable communities. 

this is the third essay in a series about the Before trilogy, a choice I maybe regret now but here we are. the first and second one are here and here, although you don’t need to have read them to read this essay, just as you don’t need to have seen or have any interest in these movies to read these essays that are nominally about them. I promise.

Last month, I watched Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in a two-day marathon frenzy of wanting to feel something. I loved the first two, in the way one loves a person and not a movie, and I was profoundly embarrassed by it. At the end of the second day of this, when I put on Before Midnight, I already knew that I didn’t really want to watch it. I didn’t want more to the story than the fantasy ending with which the second movie had concluded. I wanted to stay in the place where I felt like the dirty-handed and selfish fables about love and its return, its importance the way a summer day thinks it is important merely because it is beautiful, had been allowed to claim victory. I wanted all of the intoxicating flimsiness of these movies to continue, and to sweep me away. “The third one is brutal,” several people messaged me when I posted about watching the first two, and I thought oh I am going to hate this.

In college, when I figured out that I wanted to be a writer, I started writing a novel. The novel I started writing was about a middle-aged man whose marriage was falling apart. He was also, I believe, having an affair. He and his wife hated each other and fought a lot. None of this had anything to do with my own life experiences or interests. I mean, my parents weren’t even divorced. But I had an idea that this topic— unhappy heterosexual marriage—was the only topic on which a novel counted as a novel. All I wanted to do was write about love, but this was the only way I felt I was allowed to do it. I had to write about the worst version of it, the ugliest, most desultory, bleakest story, or else it wasn’t serious writing. The only way to get away with writing down sentences about love was to make it about two unhappy middle-aged people trapped in a marriage. Writing about a shitty marriage was what it meant to be a novelist. I don’t remember much about the novel because obviously it was extremely bad, and thankfully I gave up on it long before completing a draft. I can tell you what it was like, though: It was exactly like Before Midnight, because Before Midnight is this novel.

When my mom doesn’t like something, she calls it cynical. Sometimes she still does this, but I remember it most from my childhood. As an annoying kid desperate to be smarter and more interesting than I was, I determined that this meant that everything that was cynical was cool. The more my mom called things cynical, the more I decided that cynical was what I wanted to be. Kindness and softness, compassion and caution and caretaking, all of that was embarrassing, for babies. Being cynical was the thing that proved you knew what was good, that showed you were tough and grown-up and no one could fool you. 

This is a childish and embarrassing attitude—the kind of people who think cynical means serious are the kind of people who as adults use the word “adult” to mean something or someone is impressive— but it’s a childish and embarrassing attitude that was certainly not unique to me as an obnoxious child. I was participating in a widely available way of thinking. There is a larger cultural belief that says the same thing; it existed twenty years ago when I was a kid, and it exists today in an only slightly altered form. It says that the sentimental and the vulnerable are necessarily less serious, and that art that does not turn a bleak and cynical eye on the world is somehow soft-pedaling truth, playing the game on easy. Writing about love, says this idea, is frivolous, so if you write about love, the love must be aggressively unhappy and cruel. Love stories must be upsetting or traumatic, otherwise they are hackneyed and unserious. 

There’s a very funny fake New Yorker cartoon going around right now in which a dinosaur at a book-signing complains that they “didn’t find Conversations with Friends to be sufficiently Marxist.” It’s funny because people had this argument about these books (Sally Rooney’s wildly popular Normal People and Conversations with Friends) endlessly. Were they Marxist, were they stupid and for children, were they secretly brilliant or obviously brilliant or a throwback to the 19th century novel or shockingly modern or good or bad or smart or facile, and why was it that people liked them so much, what was it that had made so many people buy these books, what did it all mean? A lot of people seemed to want there to be a complex answer, but there wasn’t one: The books were about love, plain and simple, and people bought them, obsessed over them, made them successful enough for them to be made into television, watched that television and wrote articles about it, because people want stories about love. Love is basic, and simple, and embarrassing, and definitely not sufficiently Marxist, and we cannot get enough of it.

I am not really interested in the Before movies anymore and I am extremely mad at myself for having committed to the project of writing about them for the space of three essays, but I am interested in writing about love. When Portrait of A Lady on Fire came out late in 2019, many of its well-deserved rave reviews claimed it was innovating form and representation, doing something wholly new. While it is true that the male heterosexual gaze is absent in the movie, that the sex in it is queer in a way rarely seen in films with the kind of large reception this one has had, and that its depiction of women’s lives and bodies is close to the skin to an unusual although not unprecedented degree, still, Portrait of A Lady on Fire did not strike me as a movie doing a new thing. Rather, it was doing an old thing— telling a love story— very, very well, and people wanted to talk about it because people want to talk about love more than they like to admit that they do. I liked the movie because it was about love, because I wanted to feel the things the movie felt, to sit in the dark and marinate in my longing. The thing about Portrait of A Lady on Fire was not filmmaking or abstractions, or even the autobiographical element of Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel’s relationship history. Instead, it was much the same thing that made so many people read Sally Rooney’s books. The thing of it was love, and yearning, and the overwhelming shared desire to tumble into these emotions as into a deep bed. It was not that the feeling was portrayed in a new way; it was just that there was so much of it.

I mistrust myself when I write about love; I try to steer my impulses toward some better subject, toward something that will make me seem more serious, less solipsistic, less immature. Almost everything is more important than two people having a long conversation across a golden day about how they’ve missed each other, their limbs aching in the small uncrossed space between them. Almost everything is more important than people in rooms, or how the space between people becomes a room. Almost everything else matters more than the bright and out-of-nowhere electric thing that rises up between people, that comes in like the weather and digs out furrows through the rest of our lives, like the wordless and nearly unbearable scene in the record store in Before Sunrise, the first of these soapy and embarrassing movies, the scene in which, in some way, all three of the movies take place. There is far more to the world than the collision of individuals with one another, the accidents and longings of bodies, the way people throw their lives at one another, the way two people become a car crash, the way people wash up on the coastlines of one another; it’s just that I don’t really care about any of it.

Writing about love is embarrassing, but it’s nothing compared to how embarrassing it is that I am writing a third essay about these wafer-thin and adolescent-hearted movies that Richard Linklater made about about two mediocre people’s mediocre relationship in white European year-abroad cities. But there it is again: My desire to trash these movies as a means of telling you that I love them is that same mandate, that desire to be considered rigorous by way of being cynical. If I have to love things, and if I have to write about love, the least I can do is show you that I am in on it, that I am not being fooled. Other people are taken in by romantic movies, by attractive actors talking about nothing, by a sweep of feeling with no substance behind it, by the golden light in Paris at the end of the afternoon. I am taken in by it, too, but I see what it's doing. I have the sense to also be embarrassed by it, and by myself in general. I feel the things it wants me to feel, but I am not subject to it. 

Of course that’s all a bunch of bullshit. I am a huge stupid mark for love. I write about love because all of its cons have worked on me. I am interested in the things by which we are fooled, the ways in which we are fallible and weak, vulnerable to the tricks something is trying to play on us. In love, people show their ass. They embarrass themselves. Their performed cynicism falls away. What we love exposes the gap between who we would like to be, and who we actually are. The impulse to be cynical, and to tell cynical stories about love under the veneer of seriousness, is an attempt to paper over those vulnerabilities. If the first two movies in the Before trilogy are love at its most showing-its-ass foolish, the third one is the attempt at this cover up, the scramble to construct a fortress of falsely serious cynicism. 

Before Midnight tells the story of the same two boring, attractive people from the first two movies, nine years after the second movie’s conclusion. They are in a long-term relationship; they have two children (plus one from Ethan Hawke’s character’s earlier marriage); they are on the last night of a vacation in Greece; they are forty-one and forty-three, which the movie thinks is the literal oldest a human being can get, just basically a pile of bones in a museum rotting into Methuselah-flavored dust. They have an awkward and unpleasant dinner with friends, they walk across the island where they’re staying, they go to a hotel room. They fight a lot. They were in love before they were in a relationship; now that they are in a relationship, they are unhappy. Being a parent makes you miserable, being in your forties means you might as well be dead. Being with someone for a long time means that you yell at them. That’s the movie.

Even if you haven’t actually seen this movie, you have seen this movie. You have seen this movie because it is every depiction of marriage, of love, of long relationship, in every corner of culture, from gag gifts for bachelor parties to thousand-page literary novels: Marriage is hell, love a trap, being up close with another person is a pure misery, and there is no escape from it. The only open-eyed stories are heartbreaks; the only truths are out at the limits of human cruelty. People only lie to each other; people only follow a few patterns, living and dying in the same sad dance steps as their unhappy parents and those parents’s unhappy parents before them, no matter how they try to escape.

I was right; I did hate Before Midnight. I hated it partly because I had loved the first two movies so much, and it seemed like that was what it wanted, a sadistic turnabout, although I hated it for a lot of other reasons, too. The way in which I hated this movie, and in which the movie seemed to want to make me hate it, was also its thesis about romantic love: Every illusion is dismantled as love ages, everything you wanted to believe would endure falls apart, all the beautiful things turn ugly. On the other side of the fairy tale ending is reality, and reality is harsh, and mean, and cynical. To face the truth of love is to live in the cynical version of it. 

This movie takes the same approach to representing love that I did as a college student trying to write a novel about a middle-aged man’s failed marriage, and has the same attitude I had when I was eleven and decided that because my mom hated when things were cynical, being cynical must be cool. My reasons for hating this movie have more to do with my own hopelessly biased and leaking heart than they do with the movie itself. But they also have to do with the larger project of writing about love, and whether there is a way to write about love that is not about failure, about resentment, about pain and loss and two people in a room yelling at each other. It doesn’t matter that I hated this movie, but it might matter whether or not these claims are correct, and whether what is soft and sentimental can also be serious, difficult, and true. 

“What happens after the fairy tale ends,” is meant to be an interrogation of cliché but is at this point a cliche itself. The assertion that what follows “happily ever after” is misery is just as hackneyed and boring as the idea that stories always end happily. More than anything else, that’s what makes Before Sunset, the previous movie, so compelling: it doesn’t end in inevitable tragedy, it actually roots for its characters, it lets them be together and places itself in their corner, believing their selfish immature love might work, against the odds. Against the odds is after all how most of love happens. Love is always unlikely, and statistically nearly impossible, a bizarre and anxious triumph whether we connect with someone for a night or for a lifetime. The only moment this trilogy approaches anything original is when it says, in the second movie, that maybe sometimes love succeeds. In concluding that love inevitably decays, Before Midnight is following well-worn pattern, back to all the old cliches, as radical as a joke about “the old ball-and-chain” at a wedding reception. 

I learned these stories about relationships— that love fails, that it rots into contempt, that people cannot stand to be around one another long-term, that passion only exists in newness, that everyone is always lying but especially to the people they love— from movies and books more than I did from reality, in which I have seen relationships fail and succeed and wither and thrive and exist in all manner of bleak and hopeful permutations. Love, in how I have witnessed it out in the fleshy world, is deeply weird and largely unpredictable, in the same way that getting older rarely looks like a straightforward process of decay. Lots of people are sexy in their forties and fifties and sixties and beyond; lots of marriages and long relationships are good; lots of stories end happily. To say otherwise is not hard-hitting or authentic, but merely lazy. 

Perhaps the desire to say that if an ending is happy, it’s not actually the end refers to death, the fact that love always ends up at loss, which is certainly true. But the idea that what exists up until then is necessarily miserable is born out of a small-roomed, close-hearted idea of love circumscribed by men in a past century. Many of these men had beautiful things to say about the human condition, but these things were at best limited, and not even necessarily accurate to their own personal experience. The thing that Portrait of a Lady on Fire did that felt so new may have been the simplest thing about it: it told a story about love that ended in heartbreak, but not in hatred or resentment. It could acknowledge the loss at love’s center without resorting to ugliness or cynicism. 

Love is far more than two people hatefully growing old together. Even longterm monogamous love, in all its embarrassing, boring, midcentury obviousness, is more, and more interesting, than that. Our stories are not our parents’s stories, but our parents’s stories were not actually our parents’s stories either. What we saw of those relationships, however bleak and uninspiring it may have been, was only a glimpse through a crack in the door, and even the worst relationship has more strangeness and capaciousness to it than what a person outside of it might perceive. What is kept in interior rooms is often weird, and that weirdness is hopeful. Love is the things unseen, the codes that can’t be translated out in public. There are parts of the fairy tale that we don’t see, but there are parts of the ugliness after that we don’t see either, and the breadth of experience even in the most boring version of love is so much larger than a stingy-hearted and cynical movie like Before Midnight imagines. It is easier not to be vulnerable, but cynicism tells a thin and uninteresting story, and often it fails to tell a story at all.  


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